Who’ll be disenfranchised in the EU elections?

The EU elections have a lot riding on them, and because of the way we elect MEPs, it’s critical for Remainers to know who has a real chance of getting in. In several areas of the UK, Remainers won’t get an MEP unless we’re really careful about who we vote for.

As my last post explained, the d’Hondt voting system is not proportionally representative. Small parties are penalised and large parties get an advantage, but with current polling data, who’s going to pull the short straw?

This YouGov/Hope Not Hate poll does split its results out into the EU voting regions, of which there are 12, although it does not poll in Northern Ireland, so only 11 regions are represented, accounting for 70 of the total 73 MEP seats.

I sat down with this data the other day and worked out roughly how the seats would be distributed under d’Hondt. It’s a bit tricky, because the data has been rounded to the nearest whole figure, meaning that sometimes you end up with a draw that would be extremely unlikely with real voting data. In these cases, I’ve tried to apportion the seats realistically, but that’s obviously a judgement call.

The table below shows how the national averages results I calculated earlier in the week (including Northern Ireland, so 73 seats) compare to the regionalised results (without NI, 70 seats)

Liberal Democrats31

The regional results really do make quite a difference to the overall outcome, which emphasises how important it is to understand which Remain party is doing well in your region and to vote for them.

But because of the way that d’Hondt works, parties below a certain vote percentage threshold won’t get any representation at all. The fewer the number of seats available in that region, the higher the threshold to win a seat. If you vote for a minority party, your vote won’t count because your party won’t be allocated an MEP seat.

In the final column of this table, the top value is the percentage of all the votes that were cast for parties that did not win a seat. I’ve then split that out in to the percentage of all votes cast for Leave, Remain and other parties that did not win a seat.

RegionNo of seats availableWho winsHow many votes
don’t count?
North East3Labour
32% in total
12% Leave
19% Remain
1% other
North West9Labour
27% in total
15% Leave
22% Remain
Yorkshire and the Humber6Tories
32% in total
5% Leave
26% Remain
1% other
East Midlands5Tories
21% in total
6% Leave
15% Remain
West Midlands7Tories
27% in total
5% Leave
21% Remain
1% other
East of England7Tories
22% in total
5% Leave
17% Remain
5% in total
3% Leave
1% Remain
1% other
South East10Tories
5% in total
4% Leave
no Remain
1% other
South West6Tories
18% in total
8% Leave
9% Remain
1% other
46% in total
16% Leave
30% Remain
32% in total
14% Leave
17% Remain
1% other

Basically, if you vote for UKIP, Plaid Cymru or Other, you’re shit out of luck, because they don’t get a single seat in any constituency. Wales is the worst, with a full 46% of voters being essentially disenfranchised. London and the South East both do much more reasonably, with only 5% of all votes not counting.

It’s also clear that because of the Remain vote is split between a number of smaller parties, more Remain voters will find their chosen parties not gaining a seat, and their votes essentially wasted.

The only way for Remainers to make sure that their votes to really count is to keep an eye on the polls and then go for the party in your region that is polling the best. I just hope that someone with better data and better maths than me will start making recommendations soon.

How Remain can win the EU elections

The EU elections are coming up on Thursday 23 May, and a lot of Remainers seem to be feeling dejected. The current polling has Nigel Farage’s Brexit party doing really well at 28% of the vote, and the LibDems, TIG, and the Greens splitting the Remain vote. Under these circumstances, it seems unfair to view the EU elections as a pseudo-referendum on Brexit, but there’s no doubt that people will do exactly that. But how the hell can Remain have any sort of impact on the vote given that the deck is stacked against us?

Well, good news first: The numbers are actually on our side.

The last EU elections were held in 2014, and the turnout was risible: 16,545,762 people, or just 35.6% of the electorate. Compare this to the Remain vote in the EU referendum, which was 16,141,241, just 404,521 fewer people than the entire turnout in 2014.

Looking at the results of the 2014 EU elections, a quick count of parties that are now explicitly or implicitly (ie Labour) pro-Brexit shows that there were about 13 million people willing to vote for parties that now support leaving the EU, and about 3 million people for Remain. Basically, the anti-EU parties have always been really, really good at getting out their vote.

But there are now a lot of Remain voters who are energised and passionate about the EU, and we need all of them to get out and vote, so every one of the 16.1 million who voted for Remain in the EU referendum, everyone who’s come of age since 2016, everyone who signed the Revoke petition, everyone who went on the People’s Vote March. Everyone who cares about our future needs to make sure they are registered, make sure they know where your polling station is, and get out and vote.

Traditionally, we British haven’t given a fuck about the EU elections, but this election is one of the most important of our time. We must show the EU that we value it, and that means getting out and voting en masse. We have the numbers, we can really do this.

If we don’t, then it’s not going to be good for the Remain parties. I have heard a lot of people saying something along the lines on “the Remain vote can’t be split because EU elections have proportional representation”. But that’s not really true.

The EU election in the UK, except for Northern Ireland, is run using the d’Hondt System, which is like the bastard child of First Past The Post and Single Transferrable Vote. Northern Ireland actually has STV.

Under d’Hondt, each party puts forward a list of candidates in order of preference, and each voter votes for a single party’s list. The party with the most votes gets the first seat, which goes to the first candidate on their list. Their votes are then divided by the number of seats they’ve got plus one, in this case two. The party that then has the highest number of votes gets the next seat, and that goes to that party’s first candidate (or the first party’s second candidate).

The UK is split into regions with varying numbers of candidates, from 3 to 10:

East Midlands: 5
East of England: 7
London: 8
North East England: 3
North West England: 8
South East England: 10
South West England: 6
West Midlands: 7
Yorkshire and the Humber: 6
Wales: 4
Scotland: 6
Northern Ireland: 3

So if you’re in a region with only 3 seats, then your party is going to need to get a lot of votes in order to win a seat.

Let’s illustrate this with the latest polling date from YouGov, which won’t provide an accurate picture of the eventual vote because it won’t take regional variations into account, nor will it take smaller parties into account either. But, still, it will illustrate the impact of a split Remain vote.

So, the full list of voting intention percentages is:

Conservative: 13%
Labour: 22%
Liberal Democrats: 7%
UKIP: 5%
Green: 10%
Change UK TIG: 10%
Brexit: 28%
Other: 1%

And under the d’Hondt system, the seats won from this would shake out as:

Conservative: 10
Labour: 22
Liberal Democrats: 0 or 1
Green: 8
Change UK TIG: 5
Brexit: 27 or 28
Other: 0

Because, with these numbers, in the final round the LibDems and Brexit have the same number of votes, so the final seat could go to either one of them.

If the LibDems got their one seat, then Leave parties would win 46% of the vote but 50.7% of the seats (37 seats), whilst the Remain parties would win 32% of the vote but only 19.2% of the seats (14 seats), with Labour vacillating in the middle with 22% of the vote but 30.1% of the seats (22 seats). Because who the hell knows whether Labour is Remain or Leave at this point.

If Labour came out for Remain in the end, then we’d see Remain win 54% of the vote but 49.3% of the seats (36 seats) vs Leave taking 46% of the vote but 50.7% of the seats (46 seats). If Labour came out for Leave, Remain would get 32% of the votes, but 19.7% of the seats (14), with Leave taking 68% of the votes but 80.8% of the seats (59 seats).

UPDATE 30 April: Labour have decided today that they will be pursuing their “alternative” Brexit, which is just as unrealistic as the Tories’ version, so they have essentially come out for Leave.

This means that, with current polling, we’re looking at Remain getting less than 20% of the seats on about 32% of the votes. This is not good.

The d’Hondt system does not apportion seats in a perfectly proportional manner, penalising smaller parties and advantaging the bigger parties. So not only is it possible to split the Remain vote, doing so will severely damage the number of seats we can win.

But, at this point it’s worth repeating the fact that there are enough Remain voters, we just have to get out and vote.

It’s also worth pointing out that the pollsters might well be overestimating the Brexit Party’s support, so the situation may not be as dire as it looks. But that’s no reason to sit on our laurels. Never has it been more important to get people out to vote.

Small footnote on Labour and tactical voting: Unless Labour come out firmly as Remain, committed to at the very least a People’s Vote, then it is far, far too risky to vote for them in the hope that they might at some point do the right thing. If Labour remain this unreliable and feckless, then the only choice Remain voters have is to vote for the most popular Remain party in their region, even if it’s the LibDems. I know a lot of people still hate the LibDems on principal, but Brexit is a way bigger issue than tuition fees ever was and in this instance, if they are the most likely to get a good showing in your region, then it’s important to vote for them.

In support of the Women’s March

To everyone going on a Women’s March today, thank you for standing up and being counted. Thank you for making a strong statement of solidarity with everyone who is, has, or will suffer from the bigotry, ignorance and selfishness of right-wing governments and their supporters.

To everyone who can’t go to a Women’s March today, firstly, I know it feels a bit crap to not be able to go, for whatever reason. But do not feel disheartened, do not feel guilty, because there are many, many things that you can do to add your voice to those marching. For me, there are two important things I am committing to do over the next few years:

1. Help progressive candidates get elected at all levels of government. Whether that’s someone at a local level in my home town in the US or whether it’s supporting someone running for MP in the UK, we need more women, more people of colour, more scientists, more LGBT people, more working class people running for office and winning.

Emily’s List helps women, https://www.emilyslist.org/
314 Action & STEM the Divide help scientists: http://www.314action.org/

More United helps progressives: http://www.moreunited.uk/
EuroMove is campaigning to halt Brexit: http://euromove.org.uk/about-us/

There are loads more organisations out there – feel free to add more in the comments.

2. Find an organisation that supports a worldview I believe in and donate. There are so many of them, I’m just going to pick one that works on issues that are important to me.

And then I’ll focus on those two things. Block out the gish gallop of shite coming from the mouths of Trump and May. Block out the naysayers and the doom mongers. Block out the cynics and the trolls. Block out self-doubt and fear. Just do something, however small, and focus on that act.

Trump and May want to drown us in a tidal wave of bullshit, a tidal wave that they know we can’t beat. It’s impossible to refute every piece of shit that comes out of their mouths, and none of their supporters would believe us anyway. So we have to find some high ground and occupy it. Give money, or time, or expertise to a group we believe in. Get involved.

Because there are more kind, progressive, thoughtful folk than there are mean, bigoted and ignorant folk, even though it doesn’t seem like that right now. And given the fact that younger people tend to be more progressive, as time goes by our society will become more progressive. And we need to nurture those youngsters so they don’t get disillusioned – they need to see us act. Not just march, they need to see us coalesce around groups and organisations and do something. And we all can.

Remember: Action is our life-raft. Taking action will help us feel more in control and less helpless. Taking action will introduce us to new friends. Taking action will make us a part of something so much bigger than ourselves. Taking action will help us secure the kind of future we want, the kind of future we didn’t realise was so fragile, the kind of future we can be proud to have helped create.

Are Facebook ads good value for money?

I’ve never used Facebook to advertise anything to do with Ada Lovelace Day, but I thought I’d give it a go with a post about Ada Lovelace Day Live, just to see what happened. I assumed that FB would be quite effective at delivering my post to a large, relevant audience, but that’s not what happened.

When I set up the ad, FB said I’d reach 2,700 – 7,200 people, but in fact it only reached 1,588. The idea that FB somehow can’t find 2,700 people in the UK, over 7 days, who match my audience profile (ie, graduate or higher, in all the STEM-related fields they have) is absurd. Indeed, FB itself says that the potential size of my audience is 28 million, but it couldn’t find more than 1,588 people. Sure. Right. I totally believe that. *cough*

Of those 1,588 people reached, 25 “reacted” to it (ie used the like button), two commented (one of those comments is a guy being an asshole), five people shared it, and six people clicked the link.

These are not particularly impressive figures to me.

Now, I know that I only spent £10, but I run ALD on a shoestring, and that £10 was a test to see if it would be worth spending more. Frankly, I can’t say that I’m confident that it was even £10 well spent.

I had assumed that FB would be a cost-effective way to reach lots of people, but at £1.67 per click, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Frankly, it feels more like a rate-limited con than a useful service.

Kevin is more sanguine than I — he thinks 1,588 is good for a low-follower page (we have 124 likes on our page), and he has more experience than I do with the way that FB works. However, the point is that the whole reason for paying for an ad is because our page has few followers, and because FB has destroyed organic reach in order to force us to pay to reach more of the people we previously would have reached anyway.

But they’ve done a shit job of up-selling, because I would have invested £100 in ads, and would have expanded my ad horizons to include merchandise and similar if FB had delivered on this test. They didn’t deliver, so they’ve lost a potential advertiser and, sadly, I’ll have to just battle on and try to grow my organic reach.

This is a huge shame. The promise of social networks was that it would level the playing field, and that the smallest organisation or the least famous person still had the opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. There is, of course, now a huge issue with noise which didn’t exist at the dawning of the social media age, but that’s not the problem with Facebook.

The problem is that they have deliberately locked small folks out of building reach organically in order to drive ad revenue, but are not providing good value for money when people with limited resources pay a small amount for ads. Had they delivered even the lower end of their estimated reach range, I might have considered investing more. Had they delivered 7,200 people, then I certainly would have, even though I still think that’s an artificially low number given that they said my audience is 28 million.

What rankles most is that not only is there no good reason for limiting ad reach this severely, but also that it hurts the very people that social media was suppose to help: those of us stuck in the long tail without the resources to spend loads on advertising.

Tackling Twitter abuse

Twitter has an abuse problem, and as this detailed article by Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel, which interviews several (ex-)staff members shows, it is a problem of the company’s own creation. Allowing abuse has been Twitter’s conscious choice and, despite protestations, it can be solved.

The problem of abuse and harassment on Twitter is years old, almost as old as Twitter itself, and each attack brings renewed calls for Twitter to act. The drumbeat of people – usually women, LGBTQ people and people of colour – leaving Twitter because of harassment seems to have increased lately. Less visible are those people who self-censor more and tweet less, for fear that they might become the next target of the Twitter troll army.

Yet every time this conversation comes up, someone will say that this is a societal problem, not a technological one, and that there really isn’t very much more that Twitter can do than what it’s already doing. What we apparently need to do is fix society, and then all the racism, sexism, bigotry and abuse will just magically disappear.

The reason for citing technological difficulties is to punt the discussion of potential solutions into the long grass, because if it’s technologically impossible to solve a societal problem, then we don’t need to actually do anything about the technology. It’s a great way to stifle criticism of the status quo and to take the pressure off Twitter to act. It is also total bollocks. Twitter has created a technological problem and there are technological ways to ameliorate it.

Off the top of my head, I can think of ways to help solve The Twitter Problem. These aren’t fully fleshed out, they’re just a few thoughts I had whilst falling asleep last night, and if I can come up with this without even trying, imagine what Twitter could do if it bothered.

Privacy gradients

The first thing that always comes to mind when I think about social networks and communities is the idea of privacy gradient. This is what I wrote about privacy gradients in 2010:

The idea of a privacy gradient comes from architecture and refers to the way that public, common spaces are located by the entrance to a building and as you progress through the building the spaces become more private until you reach the most private ‘inner sanctum’. If you think of a house, then the most public part would be the porch (in the UK, a fully or semi-enclosed space around the front door, in the US, it’s often open or screened). The hallway is common space shared by everyone, and spaces like the kitchen and lounge are semi-private. As you progress deeper into the house you end up at the bedroom (and in some cases, the en-suite) which is the most private part of the house.

Understanding the privacy gradient is important, because when buildings ignore privacy gradients, they feel odd. Think about houses where there’s a bedroom directly off the lounge and how uncomfortable that can make visitors feel. I once had a friend who lived in one of the old tenements near Kings Cross, now torn down. To get to his bedroom and the kitchen you had to walk through his flatmate’s bedroom, a deeply uncomfortable act.

I also said, back then:

As one moves along a privacy gradient, one is also moving along a parallel trust gradient. As you invite me deeper into your house, so you are displaying increasing trust in me. […] The same, again, is true on websites. The more we communicate, the stronger our relationship becomes, the more I trust you, the more of myself I am willing to reveal and share.

Six years ago, I thought that Twitter had a basic, but basically sufficient, privacy gradient. And, indeed, it might have been sufficient for the network in 2010, but it is now completely insufficient. Twitter doesn’t really have a gradient, as such, but a limited number of privacy modes:

  • Public account, with potentially unlimited @messages because everyone can see everything you write
  • Open DMs, where anyone can send you a DM, but only you and the sender see them
  • Private account, @messages are limited because only your approved friends see anything to respond to
  • Private DMs, that you can only receive from people you follow

These modes are far too clunky. If you want to reach lots of people, or merely want to be open, you have to have a public account, which means that you are open to an avalanche of @messages from the world and her husband. If you have open DMs you’re risking an avalanche of unsolicited messages, again from the world and her husband. These are ostensibly “private”, but you can’t control who they come from and only you and the sender can see them. And there’s nothing like a bit of pseudo-privacy to encourage abuse from people who feel empowered to be arseholes by the veil of secrecy.

Private accounts limit the number of people who can see your tweets to just those you approve. That reduces unwanted attention, but is also untenable for anyone who wants a broader conversation, or who is a public figure. Private DMs are the most limited form of interaction that Twitter allows.

This isn’t really a sliding scale of privacy; it’s more a choice between on and off, which is a bit of Hobson’s Choice if you want any level of broader discourse. For businesses, celebrities, or even just those of us who are — or, at least, have been — happy to exist online in public, a private account isn’t going to meet our needs. And yet, a fully public account with open-season @messages is fertile ground for abuse.

Some people do, of course, maintain both public and private accounts, which makes sense in some circumstances. But it’s not only a potential duplication of effort, it’s also risky: It’s very easy to post to the wrong account when you are running more than one. And it’s a greater cognitive overhead to run two similar accounts, eg public me and private me, as opposed to two very different accounts, eg me and my cat.

So Twitter needs to create a gentler, longer privacy gradient. This has often been done, by other social networks, by allowing the user to group their friends and send messages only to certain groups. The trouble is, no one actually wants to sit down and spend hours classifying their friends. It’s a ham-fisted solution to a problem that requires something smoother. And I think there is a smoother solution.

Use data smartly to curb abuse

One thing that Twitter has is data. It knows who your social network is. It knows who you follow, who follows you, how long they have followed you, how often they @ you, how often you @ them. It has detailed information about how you interact with your friends. It can analyse that behaviour and it can form a detailed understanding of what “normal behaviour” is for you and your friends.

This kind of network analysis is old hat. People have been digging into social graphs since the data first became available, and there are plenty of people out there who understand how to analyse and understand this kind of data better than I do. But suffice it to say that Twitter has the data, and I suspect the expertise, it needs to perform this sort of analysis.

Network analysis doesn’t just provide information on what “normal” interactions are, it can also point to patterns of abuse. Indeed, anyone who’s been on Twitter long enough can deduce the pattern of an attack on an individual. In no particular order, these sorts of things happen in a dogpile:

  • Target is RTd by someone with a lot of followers
  • Target gets @s from people they do not follow, and who do not follow them
  • Number of @s increases rapidly as the attack spreads
  • Target tries to RT or .@ to draw attention to the attack
  • Target retreats, but the attack continues

These behaviours are clearly different from normal interactions, and it should be possible to design an alert system that throws up a red flag as soon as these behaviours are noted.

One challenge is that, on the face of it, an abusive dogpile might look a lot like an enthusiastically positive response to a tweet or a RT by a celebrity. Or that a mostly positive conversation could include abusive tweets. Or a wide-ranging conversation around a popular hashtag.

I suspect, however, that if one were to dig into the details, it would be possible to spot the differences between these scenarios, not least by looking at the kinds of accounts taking part, the language used, whether there is a hashtag involved and what that hashtag is (hashtags can be used to coordinate attacks, so aren’t themselves indicative), the timing of replies, etc. For example, a popular user posing a question and then RTing the best answers is going to have a very specific profile that would be very different to that of abuse.

The right kind of analysis can also help to identify abusers through their behaviour, as they:

  • @ someone they don’t follow and haven’t interacted with before
  • @ someone whose friends they don’t follow
  • @ that person repeatedly and in rapid succession
  • Use abusive language
  • Follow other accounts who are also engaged in, or even inciting, the attack

Maybe the accounts are new sockpuppets that resemble spammers, or maybe they have huge followings, or somewhere in between. Maybe the inciting RT was made innocently by a celebrity whose followers take it all a step too far, or maybe it’s a deliberate attempt to drive someone off Twitter. It doesn’t really matter: Attacks seem to follow similar trajectories and should be detectable in the data.

More importantly, the analysis of your social graph could be used to forestall an attack. I imagine a system where all tweets coming from outside my immediate circle of long-term (say over 30 days) followers, and their long-term followers, are immediately suspect and subject to additional scrutiny before they get to my @ timeline. Perhaps they go through linguistic analysis to look for problematic epithets. As imperfect as such analysis is, as a part of a broader strategy it might well have its place.

The system would also look for other signs that an attack was beginning: Are there other @ tweets coming in from outside the target’s friends and friend-of-a-friend network? Are those tweeters related in any way, eg do they follow someone who RTd a tweet by the target, be they clueless celebrity or bigot? Are they responding to or using the same hashtag?

If enough flags were triggered, the system would escalate, either to a human moderator at Twitter (though frankly I think that would be a terrible idea, given how inconsistent human moderation tends to be) or to the next level of automated control. In the automated case, any tweets that look like they might be part of an attack would be quarantined, away from the target’s main timeline.  Rather like a spam folder, a user could either glance through them and “unquarantine” good tweets and permanently hide bad ones, or let them be automatically hidden from view without ever seeing them. Any data on false positives from users who do  could be then used to help train the system.

Users should also have control over whether they take part in such a system, and there’d need to be careful thought about appropriate defaults. Users tend not to change defaults, and whilst most new users wouldn’t be likely to need such a system, one wouldn’t necessarily know when one needed it until it was too late. For it to be effective, it would need to be an opt-out system that people have to turn off, rather than on. There would need to be both clear communication with users about what such a system would mean, how to activate it and deactivate it, and how to use it.

Notification trolling

A troll mitigation system needs to not just focus on preventing abusive content from reaching its target, but also on preventing abuse through notifications. As it stands, people who have notifications turned on get ding-ding-dinged like a rat in an electrified cage during an attack, as one friend put it. The frequency of notifications becomes a part of the attack, not just a side-effect. So there would need to be an emergency brake on those notifications to make sure that someone isn’t swamped by texts, emails and alerts.

So what happens if a user was found to be a part of an actual attack? Perhaps they would receive a warning for the first incident, detailing the problematic behaviours. If they continue those behaviours, their account would be automatically suspended for a period. Persistent offenders would be banned.

Clearly people can set up multiple Twitter accounts very easily, but an automated system would be able to deal with those far more easily than the current system, which relies on people reporting abuses. Equally, brand new accounts could have restrictions, such as not being able to successfully @ message or DM non-followers for 30 days — a new user might be able to send an @ message or DM, but if the recipient isn’t following them, they shouldn’t see it.

Now, I know some people are going to scream censorship over these suggestions, but really, that’s a nonsense. Twitter is under no legal or moral obligation to provide a platform to people who abuse others, and nor am I or any other user under any legal or moral obligation to listen to people who would abuse us. The right to free speech is not the right to be heard or have an audience. The right to free speech does not give people the right to abuse others, nor does anyone have any right to demand my attention. I am free to withhold my attention just as Twitter is free to withhold service to those who break its terms and conditions.

Other objections will be technical. How on earth would this data analysis all be done in real time? Well, most accounts won’t ever need this sort of protection. People with a handful of followers, people who rarely log in, people who rarely tweet and private accounts are unlikely to end up at the epicentre of a Twitter quake. But the accounts of those who might need it could be very lightly monitored for the early signs of trouble, and the full analysis would only kick in if needed. Equally, there are categories of users who are at higher risk of attack, such as women and people of colour, who could perhaps be given more computational attention.

And those who want Twitter’s firehose, the unexpurgated reckon of the unfiltered masses in all it’s glory could, obviously, opt out.

Finally, one thing you’ll notice is absent from this blog post is a call for better reporting tools. Ultimately, focusing on users reporting abuse is shifting responsibility for dealing with that abuse on to the target. That is unethical. It is, essentially, the technological equivalent of victim blaming. If I am abused, I do not want to have an easier way to deal with the abusive messages, I want to never see them in the first place. Sure, blocks and mutes can be fed into the system to help train it, but prevention is always better than cure.

EDF Energy support girls in STEM by giving prize to boy

EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious campaign to encourage girls’ interest in STEM was controversial from its launch last September, but now they’ve really taken the biscuit to end all biscuits by awarding their #PrettyCuriousChallenge prize to a boy.

Before we go further, I have to emphasise that this is not the fault of the boy, Josh, at all. Nor is anyone saying that he didn’t deserve the prize he was given. That’s not the question. The question is, why was a competition run as part of a campaign to encourage girls into STEM open to boys at all?

To understand just how appallingly EDF Energy have mismanaged this entire campaign, we have to go back to September last year when EDF Energy announced their Pretty Curious campaign, and a supporting “study” that they said they’d done. From the Independent:

A UK-wide campaign is being launched to inspire teenage girls to pursue science-based careers after new research revealed how a third don’t think they are clever enough for such jobs.

EDF Energy polled* over 2,100 pupils aged between 11 and 16 to find 32 per cent of young girls don’t think they have the smarts to become a scientist – despite the subject being one of their most-enjoyed (28 per cent) and incurring the best performance rate in at school (38 per cent) in the last academic year.

*Total sample size was 2,167 children aged 11 to 16, who were in Key Stage 3 or 4 in the last school year (2014/15). 1,127 were boys and 1,040 were girls.

Now, the study results weren’t out of line with other such work, but nevertheless, it’s always a bit suspicious when a company releases ‘research’ that just happens to back up a PR campaign that they are launching at the same time. Curious to see how the study was conducted, journalist Kate Bevan asked EDF Energy to share their data and methodology so that it could be examined. They never did share that info.

A bigger problem was the name, “Pretty Curious”, for which EDF Energy were strongly criticised on Twitter and in the media. The very phrase “pretty curious” creates a relationship between girls’ physical appearance and their interest in STEM, a relationship that should not exist. Add to that the fact that the campaign website featured articles about women working in fashion and make-up, the link between attractiveness and curiosity is reinforced.

Women are too often judged on their appearance, and girls in particular are vulnerable to body shaming, being constantly exposed to unattainable ideals of beauty via the media. The association of science and beauty created by the campaign name both reinforced the idea that one must be beautiful to succeed, and created a new association, that you must be beautiful to be in science. This is incredibly corrosive, and meant the campaign might alienate girls who are interested in science but don’t consider themselves pretty.

Wired wrote at the time:

EDF responded to the criticism on Twitter, reassuring critics that it “purposefully chose the word ‘pretty’ to tackle the stereotype head on and create conversation around what is a very real societal issue”.

“We knew the name would attract attention and chose it in order to raise awareness of the campaign, which is aiming to address significant under-representation of women in STEM,” a spokesperson for EDF added via email. “The lack of women working in STEM is a critical issue for us. Whether one likes the language or not, the issue facing the UK is real, and we are determined to use our business to be part of the solution”.

What frustrated me about this response was the assumption by EDF Energy that a conversation needed to be created at all. There are already plenty of individuals and groups working on finding solutions to what is a complex and deep-seated problem. Not only are we always having our own conversations about it, those conversations go back decades, even centuries. But rather than listening to those of us already working in the field,  EDF Energy decided to put PR first and ignore the ways in which they could contribute to the community.

I was also frustrated by their idea that it would be in any way beneficial to create a controversy around girls and women in STEM. We already have enough people online who take an unnecessarily adversarial approach towards our work, and who try to undermine women’s contributions to STEM. We really don’t need a manufactured controversy as well.

Another major problem with EDF Energy’s plans was that they were very short term. Again, from Wired:

The Pretty Curious campaign is due to hold three events in the UK, encouraging girls to take part in activities including coding, 3D printing and laser cutting. EDF also recruited several female ‘role models’ who work in STEM careers — a chemical engineer from EDF, a cosmetic scientist with her own line of cosmetics, a computer scientist who created her own app and a TV presenter with a master’s degree in biochemistry.

We know from 30 years of trying to increase the number of girls studying physics that one-off interventions do not work, because over those 30 years the percentage of girls studying physics hasn’t changed. If short-term interventions like #PrettyCurious made a difference, we would have solved the women in STEM problem decades ago. But whilst some of the girls who took part in EDF Energy’s events might have individually been inspired to carry on studying STEM, it’s just a drop in the ocean. There are 5.4 million girls under the age of 14 in the UK, so inspiring even a few hundred is not enough.

What we really need is a major cultural shift, and that means long-term work tackling the attitudes of teachers, parents and children alike. It’s about getting more women on TV and in the media as experts and figures of authority. It’s about combatting the subconscious bias that marks girls down, that tells girls ‘no’, that they should do something ‘more appropriate’. It’s about understanding the evidence that we have gathered so far, learning how to apply those lessons, and changing our approach whenever new evidence shows us that we need to adjust.

Three events and a website is not going to achieve that. We need to be in it for the long run. For decades. Maybe for centuries. Certainly for as long as it takes.

So, where are we at, now, five months after the initial furore about this ill-conceived, arrogant, tone-deaf campaign began? Well, amazingly, EDF Energy have managed to trump even their terrible campaign launch with a truly breathtaking campaign finale: Their Pretty Curious Challenge has been won by a 13 year old boy.


The Pretty Curious campaign’s stated aim was to encourage girls to engage with STEM subjects. And yet the Pretty Curious Challenge was open to both boys and girls, and a boy won.

This is a fail on so many levels. Firstly, Marketing 101 includes the lesson that you must always know what your message is and you must always stay on message. From the beginning, the #PrettyCurious message was “Girls! Get involved in STEM, it’s fun!”, and that’s a message I have no quarrel with. But extending participation to boys rather undermines that message, and when a boy wins, it says “Girls! You will always come second to boys!”, which is not at all what we want them to hear.

Wrote Zoe Kleinmann on the BBC:

EDF said that while its Pretty Curious programme is still aimed at girls, the UK competition was later opened up to all 11 to 16-year-olds.

It continues to share the same website and branding as the girls’ scheme.

The BBC understands that the decision had been made to open the competition up to both genders in the interests of fairness, and that the contest attracted “a couple of hundred” entries.

Following three events held in the UK for girls last year, the contest was extended online and made available to boys as well.

So, let’s just recap: A campaign aimed at girls is opened up to boys in the name of “fairness”, when the whole point is that girls are not currently treated fairly and need encouragement to study STEM. How on earth does EDF Energy square that circle? It makes less than no sense.

It also raises some interesting questions: Why was the competition opened up to boys? How many entries came from boys and how many from girls? How does EDF Energy define “fairness”? And how does opening up the competition to boys fit in with their stated campaign mission? Was it that they didn’t get enough entries from girls? And if so, what else could EDF Energy have done to increase participation without opening up the competition to boys? How do you think the girls who engaged with #PrettyCurious, having been told that it was specifically for them, feel about a boy winning?

The whole thing is a total fiasco, and throughout it all EDF Energy have been condescending, patronising and arrogant. Here are a few of their Tweets from today, which show them again failing to understand the problem with their campaign, or why people are angry. Instead of addressing the issue, they simply double down:

Screenshot 26:02:2016 15:43

The sad thing is, it could all easily have been avoided. EDF Energy’s social media team said last October that they had spent 18 months researching this project, however not one person that I know who works with girls/women in STEM was approached by them. Any one of us would have been happy to act as a consultant, and to help them find a better premise upon which to build a campaign. I’m pretty sure that would not have been difficult.

But worse, by not engaging with the community, EDF Energy lost the opportunity to learn where their money could better have been spent. There is very good evidence that one-off interventions like Pretty Curious do not work. They do not address the core problem, which is a complex one made up of cultural, societal and psychological components (at least). Ultimately, the money spent on this project has been wasted.

Had they engaged with the community, we could have pointed them in the direction of projects that are working towards creating the right kind of change, and that have the necessary longevity and experience. There are a lot of organisations working on these issues, and many of them are working very effectively at a grassroots level with very few resources. A program of sponsorship would not only have produced better results, it would also be better for EDF Energy, showing a willingness to work with the community, instead of against it.

Instead, we get what is not just a publicity stunt, it’s a damaging publicity stunt, damaging to girls interested in STEM and damaging to EDF Energy’s reputation.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and the #PrettyCurious story doesn’t have to end this way. When Intel had to publicly apologise after becoming embroiled in an anti-woman online campaign, they realised that they had to do something urgently about diversity. They pledged to spend $300 million to increase diversity, said The Verge:

At the time [of the apology], the company said “Intel believes men and women should be treated the same. And, diversity is an integral part of our corporate strategy and vision with commitments to improve the diversity of our workforce.” Today, [Intel CEO Brian] Krzanich elaborated on that by saying Intel’s own internal goal was to reach what he referred to as a “full representation in all levels” in its workforce by 2020. That not only includes its rank and file, but at the executive level as well.

So come on, EDF Energy. You can do better than #PrettyCurious, you can do far better. There are many, many organisations that support women in STEM that you could fund and work with, including my own, Ada Lovelace Day. You don’t even have to pledge $300 million. A tenth of that would be a good start.

How Tor failed Social Media 101

There are some companies that appear to be native to the web, not just on the web but of the web. Often these companies were early adopters, building websites whilst others called the web a ‘fad’, starting blogs before most people knew what they were, and using social media in a way that makes them appear to have a sound and thorough understanding of the medium. Tor is one such company, but sadly, it has recently become clear that Tor does not actually understand social media and, in particular, has not developed or adhered to a crisis communications policy. 

The short story is that some month ago, two overlapping groups of people calling themselves the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies campaigned to game the Hugo Awards, in which both nominations and awards are via a popular vote. Whatever one thinks of the people in and supporters of these groups, it is fair to say that they are engaging in what one might call grievance politics. Certainly there’s also an awful lot of identity politics involved, so temperatures on all sides are running high. If your’e not familiar with the backstory, a quick google will provide you with a wide variety of opinions on the Puppies, their politics and their activities.

What I am specifically concerned about, and why I’m disappointed in Tor, is their reaction to a complaint from one of the Puppies about a comment made by a Tor employee, Irene Gallo, on her personal Facebook page. Rather than taking a considered approach, Tor threw their employee under a bus, and appear to have broken every rule in the crisis comms rulebook. It’s sad to see that a company that in many other respects really gets the web, fails to understand how to manage the fallout from an online furore. 

Note: I have no insider knowledge of what went down at Tor, I only have their public statement to go on, but that in itself tells me a lot about what probably did and didn’t happen. 

1. Consider the situation 

The first mistake Tor appear to have made is that they did not fully understand and consider the situation. There are several aspects to this situation that raise red flags and call for especially careful handling of the response: 

Any one of those issues would flag a complaint as requiring careful thought, but all of them together add up to a warning to tread incredibly carefully indeed. I don’t think Tor did that. The wording of Tom Doherty’s blog post in response to the complaint is clumsy and ill-considered, and shows no signs of having been properly thought through. 

2. Take enough time, but not too much or too little

When the shit hits the social media fan, it is important to respond in a timely manner, but it’s even more important to avoid a kneejerk reaction. If an issue needs further inquiry before a full response is issued, then it’s acceptable to publicly acknowledge the complaint and say that it’s being looked into.

It may even be that no response is required – not every complaint is deserving of employer intervention. If an employee has a disagreement with a member of the public on her own Facebook page, it is possible that her apology on said Facebook page is sufficient, and that her employer need not step in at all. One can debate whether that was the case here or not, but it is an option that should have been considered, along with all others.  

Doherty’s response reads very much like a kneejerk reaction. it is, to all intents and purposes, a public disciplining of Gallo, which is entirely inappropriate no matter what Gallo did. If you address a complaint, you do not use it as an opportunity to shame your staff. Doherty should have taken more time to think about exactly what was going on and how his post would be read by the broader Tor community. 

3. Remember there are three sides to every argument

Any public response to a public complaint is made more complex by the fact that there are three parties involved: You, them, and the audience. In his rush to appease Gallo’s critics, Doherty appears to have forgotten that he might also anger people who agree or sympathise with Gallo, or who do not believe that the complaint against her has merit, or who, after reading his post, believe that the complaint has merit but that his response was inappropriate, etc. 

In chastising Gallo online, Doherty has alienated a lot of people, and that in and of itself is a massive failure for Tor that Doherty himself should be disciplined for. You simply do not rush in with a response that inflames the situation, especially when it’s obvious from the beginning that tempers are running high and offence is being easily taken. Indeed, the taking of offence is a key weapon in grievance politics, and Doherty should have both realised there was a major risk that his response as written might make the situation worse rather than better. 

4. Talk to your employee, work with them on both your response and theirs

Whether or not you agree with Gallo’s initial comment, it is clear that there was insufficient conversation between Gallo, Doherty and others at Tor about how best to deal with the situation. Gallo’s apology has been deemed a ‘fauxpology’ by some, and I can see how they would reach that conclusion. The key line is “I apologize to anyone hurt by my comments”, which might have been more appropriate worded as “I apologise for saying something offensive”. If you’re going to apologise, swallow your pride and do it properly and graciously, even if you feel you shouldn’t have to, and be very careful to avoid any wording which can be interpreted as shifting the blame on to those offended.

But equally, Doherty, does not appear to have discussed his response with either Gallo or anyone else who might have pointed out that it reads very poorly. When you respond to a complaint, you do not need to defend the complainant, you simply need to address the substance of the complaint, where it is valid, and explain if necessary any parts of the complaint you have concluded are not valid. Doherty did not do that. 

So what should Tor have done? 

There are two things that Tor should have done, and that all companies should do right now, if they haven’t already: 

1. Draft an employee social media policy

Work with their staff to draw up a social media policy, governing appropriate behaviour online. This policy should not have the effect of chilling speech, so it absolutely has to respect the fact that employees need to have their private spaces online. But it should discuss how to protect those spaces, and how to think about what can be said publicly and how to think through the potential fall-out of controversial statements.

A social media policy should also tie in to standard disciplinary procedures, so that staff are clear on what would constitute a serious transgression that would invoke that procedure, and how it will play out. Social media is not special or different, so should always follow standard HR procedures. Staff should never, ever, be chastised in public, and that this happened is a failure of senior Tor management that needs to be addressed.

2. Draft a crisis communications policy and procedure

When something goes awry, it’s essential that people across the company know what to do, who to talk to, and how to minimise the impact. Doherty has not done a single thing that I would recommend a company do, and instead of soothing ruffled feathers, he has inflamed the situation and alienated core customers. 

A crisis comms policy should again be drafted with staff, discuss the kinds of issues that can crop up, particularly the different between external crises, where an event outside of the company’s control causes a problem, and internal crises such as this one, where staff members says something without giving it enough thought.

There should be a chain of command, so that everyone knows how to escalate a problem, and there should always be two pairs of eyes on the response, particularly in small businesses where it’s easy to feel personally attacked and thus to overreact when things go wrong. There should be guidelines on how to properly respond, what to say, what not to say, how to formulate a reply that addresses the facts and not the emotion of a complaint, and when not to respond at all. 

I find it unlikely that Tor has such a procedure, given what’s just happened, and that again is a failure of senior management that they need to address, urgently. 

Note about comments: I am travelling at the moment, and because all comments are moderated there may be a delay in approval of your comment, should you choose to leave one. Abuse, rudeness or any incivility will simply result in the comment being deleted. Repeat offenders will be banned. I am not interested in a discussion of the Puppies or their politics, so those comments will not be published, along with any other off-topic comments. For the sake of clarity, on-topic comments are those about crisis comms and social media. 

On uncertainty, case studies and the Great Race to be Second

People behave in many different ways that when they are unsure what is expected of them, but one of the most common is to hang back and watch what others do. It’s often a smart tactic. It allows us to observe the behaviours and expectations of others, see how transgressors are dealt with and, in the light of that information, choose a course of action which we hope will result in a good outcome for ourselves whilst avoiding the wrath of those around us.

This tactic breaks down when either the crowd doesn’t know what’s going on and so cannot clearly demonstrate the preferred or most effective behaviours, or when the crowd is simply wrong. In the first case, hesitancy can result in poor outcomes for everyone, and in the second case, bad decisions made by early actors result in bad decisions by those who copy them.

If you want a good example of extreme uncertainty, you need look no further than the use of social media in business. The last ten years has seen a transformation in the way that businesses and their customers communicate, and not just in terms of new tools arriving on the scene. There have also been major changes in expectations regarding tone, accessibility, and response times. Many of these changes are alien to business managers, young and old, who simply don’t know how to cope with them.

This uncertainty has resulted in a lot of people milling about, looking for examples of what other companies have done so that they can copy them. If you have absolutely no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, but you know that you have to do something, then it’s tempting to copy someone else. And the main way people find things to copy is by reading case studies.

The problem with case studies

The problem with relying on case studies as a learning tool is that they give readers a highly filtered view of reality. In fact, it’s often so filtered that it’s misleading.

The first issue is success bias: The projects that get written up and publisher are the ones that succeeded. It is very, very rare for a company to write a case study of a project that didn’t go as planned. Those are buried, unexamined by the public or by social media professionals.

This is a shame, because failures offer a lot of insights into how social media works, what people respond well to (or not), and what pitfalls exist. By publishing only successful case studies, we are robbed of the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

The second issue is glossing over: Projects which are ultimately deemed successful often include missteps and misunderstandings, yet these are again often airbrushed out of any resultant case study. Instead, you are given a narrative in which only successful decisions are made and everyone gets everything right first time.

Some companies are brave enough to include a section about ‘Challenges’, but usually these are just minor speed bumps that were overcome without affecting the overall outcome of the project. The truth is that most case studies have a skeleton or two in their closet, so you have to maintain a degree of scepticism because you are only being given half the story: The pretty half.

The third issue is that of context: Case studies are often only relevant to the company that executed the project at the time that they executed it. For example, a Facebook marketing case study from 5 years ago won’t be relevant in 2015, because Facebook has changed massively and the tactics that worked then may well fall flat now.

Even within one company, case studies may not be generalisable. For example, if you’re a publisher with a romance imprint and a factual imprint, it’s likely that what works for the romance audience won’t work for the factual audience, because what they want from social media interactions will be different.

Sure, some aspects of social media are universal, but the specifics of any strategy or campaign will depend on audience. So for a case study to be useful, you have to understand precisely the context and conditions in which the original project was implemented, how your situation differs from that, and how those differences will affect your own implementation of something similar.

If you’re going to go to all that trouble, you may as well start from first principles and learn how to construct a strategy from the ground up.

The Great Race To Be Second

A dependency on case studies can also mutate into something far, far worse: A refusal to act until someone else has demonstrated results first. This Great Race To Be Second is pervasive in the field of social media, and illustrates the extreme insecurity of those making the decisions.

No one gets fired for spending millions on Microsoft products, but spend a few thousand on an untried social tool and suddenly you may have to justify your decision. The easiest way to do this is to be able to point to the competition and say, “But this is what they’re doing!”

This way of thinking is incredibly problematic for several reasons:

  • Your competition might not actually know what they’re doing, so copying them can result in poor results for you
  • Your competition might be doing what’s right for them, but that might not be right for you
  • Waiting for someone else to go first introduces unnecessary delays and may give them the competitive advantage
  • Copying others can be a very shallow way of learning how to do something, resulting in only superficial knowledge
  • Copying others results in a loss of flexibility, as if your situation changes in a different way to that of your competition, you will have no one to copy and will lack the understanding needed to diverge from their path

Businesses must instead learn from first principles, developing a solid understanding of the foundations of social media in order to craft a strategy and roadmap that is right for their company, in their market, for their audience.

Waiting for others to move first and relying on their strategies to inform yours is a recipe for disaster, and not just because you’re ceding that first mover advantage to someone else. The Great Race To Be Second can only result in a substandard result, in both the short term through suboptimal strategy and execution, and in the long term through a failure to acquire the foundational knowledge needed to understand future changes in the social media landscape.

What are case studies good for?  

All of the above does not mean that case studies are entirely useless. They’re not, they can in fact be very useful indeed as sources of ideas. Seeing what other people have done and how they’ve done it can be provide inspiration, but other people’s projects should only ever be viewed as suggestive of possible avenues to explore, and must not be read as concrete recommendations.

Ultimately, your social media activity must be driven by the needs of your business, and the needs and wants of your audience. It will also be constrained by the limitations on your resources and the cultural expectations of your audience. So you cannot build a robust strategy piecemeal out of other people’s case studies because they do not take your specifics into account.

So, by all means, read case studies, but do so knowing that they are not blueprints for success, they are at best back-of-a-napkin sketches to be investigated further.

If you want to learn how to write your own tailor-made social media strategy, my online course is available for just $87 (£58) – a whopping 75% off – until 15 February. Udemy provides all students with lifetime access and a 30 day money back guarantee. 

Five social media myths debunked

A lot of myths about social media have grown up over the last decade, many of them now so commonly repeated that they’ve passed into received wisdom. Here I tackle five of the most pernicious.

1. Social media is for youngsters

The idea of the “digital native” is a pervasive one, telling us that young people somehow innately understand technology whilst older people are social media dullards incapable of truly understanding how it works. This idea is nonsense. The truth is much more mundane: Technological capability, interest and access varies as much amongst young people as it does amongst older people. And whilst young tech users may relate to their technology differently, that’s doesn’t mean that they have developed a deeper or more comprehensive understanding than older users.

It’s really important that business people understand this, because the myth of the digital native affects recruitment and promotion, often resulting in social media accounts being run by people who are too young and inexperienced to cope with being the public voice of a business. It also disadvantages older people who may know their business, market and audience better, and have all the communications skills needed to be successful in social media.

2. No one really knows what works on social media

Whilst social media is a new field — blogs have only been around 16 years, and most social networks are less than ten years old — the idea that we don’t know how it works or what to do is false. In fact, experienced practitioners have a very good idea of what works and what doesn’t, but because of the fickleness of human nature, no one can guarantee that a particular tactic will work at a specific time.

A good practitioner will know what tactics have the best chance of success, and which to completely avoid, dependent on the nature of their target audience and the content being produced. A well-crafted social media strategy will take into account the nature of your audience, assess your content assets and resources, and make sure you choose the right social media platforms based on your business needs.

3. You need to have a profile on every social network

It is better to maintain one social network profile really well than to sign up for lots and let most of them languish. The fear is that your audience will expect you to be everywhere and that to not have a presence shows a lack of interest in serving them. The truth is that small businesses do not have the resources to be everywhere, and people understand and accept this. But if you do have a profile then people will expect it to be active, so it’s better to not create the profile in the first place than to make one and let it lapse.

Furthermore, to the point of resources, every social media platform that you engage with comes with an opportunity cost: What else could you do with that time and money? If you are spending time, and therefore money, on using a social network that doesn’t actually support your business goals, eg it doesn’t result in more sales or more brand awareness, then you are wasting your resources. You should focus on the tools that are most likely to reach your target audience and support your business.

4. You must be on Facebook

Of all the social media tropes that I hear, this one is probably the most common. The logic is that Facebook has 1.35 billion “monthly active users”, and that to eschew Facebook is to miss out on a massive audience. There are two problems with this assumption. Firstly, it is getting increasingly difficult for small businesses to get value from spending time on Facebook. Changes to the platform’s algorithms mean that even if hundreds or thousands of people decide to like your page or join your group (which is in itself a challenge that’s getting harder to meet), only a small fraction of them will see any of your posts show up in their timeline. Facebook ultimately wants businesses to pay for their posts to be promoted, so it’s in their interests to make it harder to organically reach people, not easier.

Secondly, Facebook interactions tend to be shallow: People will share posts within Facebook, but are less likely to follow links and, when they do click, less likely to stay on the site they visit for more than 5 seconds. Is there any value to building up a large following on Facebook if people don’t visit your website or buy your products?

5. Social media strategies are a waste of time

Social media can be deceptive: It’s very easy to create an account on a social network such as Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr. They’re pretty easy to use too, excepting Facebook’s impenetrable privacy settings. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to successfully use social media for business.

Many businesses who just plunge on in end up using the wrong platforms and/or the wrong messaging, see poor results and give up thinking that social media isn’t right for them or their business. In actual fact, what they needed was to think strategically about what they want to get out of their social media use, who they are talking to, and what those people will want to hear.

Using social media for business without a strategy is rather like going for a walk without a map: You might get where you want to go, but you might also end up going down a lot of dead ends, wasting a lot of time and could even get so frustrated trying to find your way that you give up.

If you want to learn how to write your own tailor-made social media strategy, you can get 50% off my online course using the code SA150120. Udemy provides all students with lifetime access and a 30 day money back guarantee.